The First Amendment; Freedom and How We Perceive It
The First Amendment and a free people. A weekly examination of civil liberties and the media in the United States and around the world. The program is produced cooperatively by WGBH Boston and the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University the host of the program is the institute's director Dr. Bernard Rubin. How much of our concept of the First Amendment and the freedom in the United States and in the world depends upon our attitude and our optimism or pessimism about our place in the world and whether we have a mission as a country and whether we have a mission as individuals and as a people. With me to discuss this is a Syria TV Professor in the English department at Boston University whose new book new world new earth environmental reform and American literature from the Puritans through Whitman is a most intriguing one. It was published by the Yale University Press in 1979. Cecilia t she won't Whitman one of the great poets of America in the last century wrote
something called our mother with die equal blood. And I'm going to just quote from your own book a bit of his poetry talking about America and about this civilization. Brain of the New World Water task is the line to formulate the modern out of the peerless grandeur of the modern out of ice self compromising science to recast poems churches art recast maybe discard them and then maybe their work is done who knows by Vision hen conception on the background of the mighty past the dead to lie in with absolute faith the mighty living present and quote society she is that the spirit that motivated the population of the United States as they contemplated the New Earth or the environmental pictures in America. Well I think it very much is that we have in this country I think a
300 year heritage. A constant impulse to as Whitman puts it formulate the modern that is to constantly free ourselves from constraints of the past to build an American myth that is congenial to our own contemporary moment. Whitman of course wants to have it both ways as we always do want to use the past to as he puts it formulate the modern that wants to be free of it and yet use it to his own advantage. And this is what we as a nation have done for three centuries including environmentally. You know in the last century in the 19th century and before we built this mythology about the United States or about this new world is a better phrase as redeem a nation.
What what is meant by a redeem a nation redeem our nation. As one author calls it. This as he puts it are almost chosen people. We have as a part of what some would call our heritage and what others might call our cultural baggage we have from the 17th century from those much maligned forefathers the Puritans. A driving impulse to reform both our political and social life and at the same time to re form our American environment to make our situation our new world suitable for a utopian community. More than that ic a utopian nation. Now the Book of Revelation in the New Testament prophesied a new heavens and a new earth.
And this was to come about at the time of the apocalypse when there would be a 1000 year period of a Christian millennium. The Puritans who came to this country in the middle of the 17th century anticipated that this period would start at any time. The signals had been prophesied in the Bible there would be a time of dreadful social upheaval and including some environmental cataclysm and then Satan would be chained up for this thousand years there would be no more evil in the world and the spirit of the Redeemer of the Christ would come again to earth for this period of a thousand years. Now what I want to suggest is that that this is not an idea that in any way died with the Puritans or waned with the waning of their culture at the end say of lots of people dated differently but let's say at the end of the seventeenth century. I want to suggest that this
idea was recast in a secular way so that our For instance American Revolution was seen as the inauguration of this period of the New Earth when we would reach our culmination of spiritual political freedom. And during which we would continue to reform our American environment including by feats of engineering bridges and dams and roadways. Cutting down the forest an idea that now seems repellent to us but which was part of this ethos of creativity for the American Redeemer nation in this state of the new earth. Now in regard to our cities which have been our most important problem in that they have grown so gargantuan and so grotesque in so many instances become difficult for us to live in them or to make social progress in them
as regards minorities and other other groups. Frederick Law Olmstead was one of these people who actually wrote the new earth to try to create cities that would be redeemable cities that were worthwhile to live in that expressed the American motif. Is that an exaggeration or was that part of this almost religious ideology behind work and work ethic. It absolutely is a part of what you're calling a religious ideology. It's important to remember about almost dead whom we regard as the father of landscape architecture created Central Park I am so in those early. Yes. What did he do in Boston Boston we have the so-called emerald necklace. We have the Fenway itself. Franklin Park which some people are are now actively trying to restore to its original site. Along the muddy
river what he saw in Boston and in Baltimore and Cleveland Buffalo Chicago all the places where he worked in designing parks and humane environments in all of this he was a social reformer. We make a mistake if we look at a man like Olmstead with an antiquarian interest. We make a mistake if we try to to think about him in an act of ancestor worship. I think what's vitally important about Olmsted first is that he came to his work with an impulse of reformist ardor his background was deeply I won't say puritanical that's wrong but went back to the Puritans themselves. That is to say he partook of that concept of America as a redeemer nation. And although in his youth he gave up doctrinal Christianity and
called it too much time spent in superstitious maundering. So we gave that up but he kept the zeal and he kept the ardor of that mission. So that when he came to his vocation of landscape design he did so with the idea that by bringing parks into the urban environment America could be saved from from urban barbarism. He saw the immigrants pouring into the American cities choked in dreadful crowded housing even pestilential housing. And he thought that one crucial and vitally important way to prevent America from turning into into a scene of new barbarians Industrial Age barbarians was through a park system that would allow people open green spaces which
would inspire them uplift them. And so for instance his design of Central Park was exactly an example of that of his reformist his moralist energies and Central Park stands really as a as a monument to this engineer to this designer. But as well to the moral reformer and that's a part of I think almost at work that that's not enough taken into account thinking of this in American history people like Theodore Roosevelt whose social ideas sometimes left much to be desired was nevertheless a new earth person as well constantly striving to enhance our image of the wilderness to see himself as a Westerner though born in the East to see himself as allied with the forces of nature. It is true that it is true that that's a hope that conservationists sought courses is one that.
Integral with our national appreciation of our our whole continent. There is I think a cross-grained attitude toward toward the continent that we have tended to neglect when we've looked at Roosevelt and at John Muir for whom your woods north of San Francisco is named another great naturalist. We've tended now in our own century as we see the despoiling ideation of our environment to enshrine these earlier figures. Muir Marsh as well patron saints as we can think of them of the conservationist movement. I think this other this other reformist impulse is one that we've perhaps too much neglected. It's the driving reformist compulsion to alter the American
environment so as to realize our national and epic destiny. This is the impulse that has led us to deforestation. Perhaps to an over engineering of our environment and what we now might see Doocy as. An unstopped exploitation of the North American continent I think is has not been the result of so much of greedy entrepreneurs of a legal system that has failed to safeguard the natural environment. I think instead what we've had in our past is three centuries old legacy of the need to change this North American continent to bring it into conformity with this idea that we
are embarking on a utopian model Lanning one needn't call it a Christian millennium the Puritans of course certainly did. As of the revolution we find our writers start to call it the age of liberty and they look forward to it to a spiritual unity among our people. Allied in Liberty at the same time necessarily converting these forests ravines snow blanketed plains swamps converting them into a more congenial habitat that would properly express and age of liberty of freedom. And so what I'm saying is that although we now in our own moment modern moment from our choked and crowded cities look out at say Yosemite and Olmstead and Roosevelt's efforts to preserve it.
John Muir in his in his wood Frederick Marsh Perkins late in the 19th century cautioning us not to over exploit our our landscape as we look at figures like these and we see that they were prophets of our own. Concerned what we are at the same time I think bound to try to remember is that we have had an overarching national mission to form our American continent and bring it into this this state of harmony with our ideas of political freedom how this is transformed itself into concepts about where we are in the world manifest destiny and all the rest of it. Discredited or not that was part of our historical heritage. People like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath tell us how bad things got. People like Saul Bellow in Humboldt's gift. Tell us how adrift the individual is in the big city and how he tries to find out the meaning of his
ordinary a life trying to find some religious or ethical connotation to it as repellent starts off as an optimist and comes into this century as a pessimist and finally in many people's view as a as a fascist. It is the American dream of optimism. Now as we face the world challenging democracy especially in the Third World as a as a myth or challenging it as a good thing politically to attack are we run out strong out of our central theme or can we reconstitute our our view not as missionaries or with his message but as believers. This is a question that is difficult to answer. Our writers in this 20th century do indeed offer us a bleak picture and in part they do so because they seem to feel that America has lost its imagination
including its political imagination as well as its artistic imagination. What we find as of the beginning the very beginning of this century when when Whitman's celebration of America's cities and its vast engineering projects are imminently world wide this celebratory continues to exist as of the turn of the century I think in mainstream America and say journalism in American magazines and newspapers. But we find those writers who were as we always think on a certain Vanguard we find them taking a very different kind of tone cautious and more than that disillusion repudiating that America of what they see as flatulent optimism and wanted the Arthur Miller view death of a
Salesman that the refrigerator is made to go out of whack just in the time that you don't have any money in your pocket as a salesman very much that very much that and that that Americans have given up their their life energies for no good purpose at all. That is that the salesman is a kind of spiritual Dead End of American culture. Along with it then we find expressions of the sort of dead end American environment we find in Faulkner the scenes of the sawmills that only desecrate the landscape and are left the mill machinery is left there rusting and rotting in a kind of gutter landscape. Good for nobody it's not farmable anymore it's not arable. It's not useful. Steinbeck himself in his Grapes of Wrath a novel that that's
not as bad as I think highly regarded as it once was but which nevertheless offers us a scene of environmental cataclysm the old man in the see would be interesting in this regard. Would it not Hemingway's because the old man is fighting and losing fighting almost instinctively. Yes and perhaps if we put it in context with its precursor Moby Dick where we have the man fighting that enormity of nature in the white whale. A man who's who's of course past his prime but whose watery world includes those who are in their prime It's an America cosmopolitan vital vigorous. It's true Ana and I for help mission as we all know but but with Hemingway by the by the time we reach Hemingway It's an old man still waging this fight there is not the sense of
youthful energy. There's no truth. He's alone that's right that's right. At the same time we have other writers I think Scott Fitzgerald in the in Gatsby in The Great Gatsby with that hideous vision of it's really Queens borough of Queens. Which has turned to the valley of ashes and he carries out these figures of the farm I mean the farm such a vital figure in American cultural history we still think of it in a style gently even if agribusiness has has become much more the reality than the family farm. But there is Scott Fitzgerald offering us that extended series of images of the farm turned to ashes. Wheat grows in the shape of ashes the farmhouses itself of ASH until he comes to the people and they are
themselves incinerated into a kind of ASH now. This role figures. Either of spiritual decay as in foreknew or spiritual incineration as in Gatsby of disillusionment I think as in Hemingway which you mention. And what we see in all of these writers Steinbeck too is I think a disillusionment with the state of American vitality they tended to think these writers of its vitality in terms of imagination. I mean we had a century or so ago more than that as of the age of the revolution the question was Would Americans retain their liberty and that was a vital issue discussed for more than a century it still is of course within this century however we find our writers using the figure of the imagination and fearing that this nation has that has somehow lost it that mainstream America
no longer has that sense of vital imagination to shape its own national purpose. Well we must be called to something if this is the new world and we are the devotees of the new earth which I think we are still drawn to a background concept then we must have something worth striving for something bigger than ourselves something that endures when we are gone something that can be handed down. Is there anything on the horizon that you see or are we at one of those freezing points of all societies when the historians of the future will say they reach so far they got up to the plane. It was always 50 degrees on the plane and somehow or other it began to. It got into them after a while. Well this is the kind of half question that. That is perplexing and then difficult to offer an answer to. I do think that it's
important that we be able to look. To the past for some of some signs of points of change for example that in the 17th century when Cotton Mather was was more than hinting that Boston might really be the site of the Redeemer nation let America my most appropriately be signified within the boundaries of this city of Boston where God's chosen people would dwell in grace. We have this word grace. As characteristic of this chosen American few What's important to see is that this word grace changes within a century to a far more secular term of liberty. This does not mean that there's been a rejection of the idea of America's so self conscious identity but
rather that a new age that of the Enlightenment. Has forced a reconsideration of the principles by which Americans were expressing their national ideals. And so the language changes from grace to a more secular one of freedom of liberty. And we get then in our our major political documents in the declaration and in the Constitution a far more secular terminology than would have been so in in the Puritan past and then we get again throughout the 19th century I think once again. A change in the way we express our national mission the language turns very dynamic in the 19th century kinetic we might almost say action words words of industry increasing progress phrases like the
rapidity of our expansion the energy of our citizenry phrases that denote energetic power that used to be a sign of progress. That's right absolutely. And we have our painters showing their their discharge rising to blend with the clouds and both are one. The writer Leo Marks says has demonstrated this in his fine book. And absolutely there was there was very little sense of contradiction between industrial America. And the natural world both were and were dynamically one could say in fact that that industrial America was was taking its proper place in the natural landscape. But of course as you mention we have that we have this phrase of manifest destiny which we would America would assume the
shape of the continent and that historically we all know that Canada and Mexico and perhaps all of South America were considered to be the site of America's future. This is humanism which is the current word. Human rights humanism is the current were certainly in the educational world everybody searching for more humanistic work to make humanistic studies more part of the everyday real world so-called. Is that something in your mind in the last few minutes of our session here something that can be expanded upon to be something of an ideal for us that we could comprehend and know how to to work. Work in the sense of achieving something with it. Well. Smiling at this moment because in some ways the humanities are kind of service industry to which we all turn away and we feel
that our that our values are diminishing or that our. Imaginative powers may be on the on the wane. Somehow And so we call to thee to be humanists who sites give us some Anchorage points for us for a future. I would say perhaps I would. I would not cite the humanities but but more the arts as a place to which we must must look for our own well call it in national inspiration. It may sound I know it sounds a little wacky to a lot of people to see man Christo giraffe as erecting a 26 mile fence across. The farmlands of the the West Middle West but it does seem to me when we talk about expressions of our. Have our national
self-consciousness and we want to do so now we must do so with out without damage we can look then I think what I say without damage I mean without environmental damage. And I want to say that we may look to our riders and look to our. Artist sculptures and painters to lead us in these times. I hope you're right and that's a good point to end with the hope from the world of artistry. And I thank you very much Professor Cecilia t she of Boston University for discussing with us your new book from Yale University Press new world new earth for this edition. Bernard Reuben. The First Amendment and a free people a weekly examination of civil liberties and the media in the United States and around the world. The engineer for this broadcast was Margo garrison on the program as produced by Greg Fitzgerald. This broadcast has produced cooperatively by WGBH Boston
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